Claudia de la Torre
Miriam Gallery
June 23 - August 21, 2022

With Palimpsest, Claudia de la Torre, whose conceptual bookworks span the last decade, tests an ambitious thesis: Can a book be conceived as an autonomous and collective system?

In practical terms, Palimpsest consists of a two-step algorithm (paraphrased for brevity):

Step 1: Generate a custom composition based on a) a graphic tool provided from twelve available designs; and b) a copy left by the previous participant on a designated tray.

Step 2: Make two copies of your composition. Distribute one copy to the wall, and one copy to the designated tray (for the next person to start with Step 1).

As an artistic performance, this can be labeled “instruction-based art” (à la Sol LeWitt’s “the idea becomes a machine that makes the art”[1]), or even “generative art.” As a book piece, it enters a half-century conversation with conceptual artists using the copy machine as a book-making medium, including Xerox Book (1968) by Ian Burn, in which a Xerox 720 machine generates one hundred iterative copies of a blank sheet, to the works of Pati Hill, whose Impossible Dreams (1976) constitutes an experimental novel depicting forty-eight appropriated photographs captured via an IBM photocopier.

Performatively, de la Torre’s work invokes the playful and democratic spirit of Ulises Carrión, the radical Mexican conceptual artist and archivist whose pioneering publications helped demystify and amplify the possibilities of artists’ books. Palimpsest recalls, for example, Carrión’s project Definitions of Art (1977), which requests random people to “just write your definition (of what art is) on the back of this card, put it in an envelope, and send it back to Other Books and So,” a show which was later turned into a printed catalogue of the entries.[2] Like Carrión and LeWitt, de la Torre’s instructions welcome both specific and open-ended results. Mystery resides in the unexpected (organic) evolution of the system.

Oscar Salguero (OS): Palimpsest marks your first solo show in the United States. What drove you to propose a community-based bookmaking experiment, as opposed to presenting a retrospective of ten years of your artists' books, for example?

Claudia de la Torre (CT): For about ten years, I’ve tried to widen the concept and possibilities of making artists’ books. I always had in mind that whether in a book form or outside of it, artists’ books need an active user rather than a passive observer, and that there are several factors that constitute their making. One of them (and perhaps the most important one) is the author. It is true that it could be regarded as an experiment. I had a hypothesis and the variables in mind, but I didn't know what the result would be. I still wanted to undertake the risk to hopefully demonstrate that a book can have multiple authors, and therefore exist as a collective effort. Presenting a retrospective of ten years felt boring and expected. Passé.

OS: Did New York City, as the location, in any way alter or inspire the concept of Palimpsest?

CT: NYC has been home to many artists that I admire. It holds a certain energy, which is not comparable to anywhere else I’ve been. More than NYC in particular, what inspired me was the invitation to exhibit at Miriam. I knew that it was a gallery and space interested in engaging the community in an active way and fostering conversations through art, books, and unconventional public programming. I saw this as an opportunity to widen my understanding of art creation and broaden the limits of its happening, as a chance to challenge ways of doing and to surprise me along the way. I thought of Miriam as a hybrid space where art and books coexist and feed from each other as a loop, in which books are shown against artworks and artworks as books. So the question arose: What if I come up with a site-specific work? One that depends on that specific space and its visitors, one that would not exist without active participation and activation. One that would return to the shelves embodied as a book. A capsule in time and space.

OS: You mentioned artists like Steve Reich, Sol LeWitt, and John Cage during your preparation for the show, all of whom had connections to New York, and incidentally all of whom deal with the concept of time, space, and chance. In what ways does your work differ from theirs, especially considering how different 2022 is to the second half of the twentieth century?

CT: I am drawn to strategies that follow concepts and systems, those which are not closed and untouchable, but rather malleable and variable. In an essay Reich wrote in 1968, he describes his music as a gradual process and how it changes his perception and attention toward the sound: “Though I may have the pleasure of discovering musical processes and composing the musical material to run through them, once the process is set up and loaded it runs by itself.”[3] My work differs from this in the sense that there is a third variable, one that actually creates the work: the participants. Each of LeWitt’s wall drawings starts as a set of instructions allowing draftsmen to execute them, but in my case, I let everyone, without exception, be a coauthor of the work. Chance is an important factor. The final result is a surprise. The instructions I give are flexible enough for the participants to either follow or break. This creates a rhythm within a visual chain. It was important to me to let the work unfold freely but be dependent on the previous copy. So, if we would take a look at the first copy that was made and the last one, all the in-between space with its noise and silences would build the body of the work. Cage, for example, was very interested in the notion of silence. In Palimpsest, the work has moments of rest. Moments where everything stands still. Suddenly the copier starts working again. The whirling sound of the machine itself serves as the soundtrack of the work, making everyone aware that there is something happening in the room. The serial and structural aspect of the piece can be compared to some of the ways LeWitt and Reich thought about composition. The same way Reich worked with the juxtaposition of sound, I was trying to work with the juxtaposition of forms that are the result of a process of time and space.

OS: Part of the show included a performance by Lesley Mok, a jazz musician.[4] You were back in Berlin at the time. Have you heard the full composition yet? I understand it is not the first time you’ve involved sonic elements into your work. How important is it for your practice to intersect other fields such as music?

CT: I have often used auditive components to either complement, expand, or democratize the work. Contrary to experiencing a book, which is an intimate and one-to-one meeting, sound reaches a multiplicity of people all at once. It fills and constructs a space. For Palimpsest I had an almost synesthetic way of wanting to approach this concept. Every page can be understood as a potential notation system. Inviting a percussionist to translate that process was intentional. In the same way that Palimpsest is constructed with the use of specific tools (a copier, twelve Plexiglas sheets, a time stamp, and a set of instructions), percussionists choose tools to create specific sounds. That translation, interpretation, and improvisation add an auditive layer which allows the piece to be activated even after the exhibition is over. This iteration quality allows the work to have an extended life. I was not in NY at the time the live set occurred, but I received feedback from one of the attendees. He mentioned how he had enjoyed closing his eyes and imagining all the pieces and their graphic quality moving like an eternal tape where each graphic element was animated, falling from the sky, moving from left to right revealing their geometric condition.

OS: Palimpsest speaks not only to bookmaking or conceptual art, but also to biological and nonhuman systems. For example, in evolution, the presence of randomness introduces mutations which may prove essential for the survival of an organism; in terms of the pandemic itself, for over two years we dealt with a virus evolving into new viral strains. I think of a James Bridle quote, “Randomness underlies the entirety of evolution, providing impetus for some of its most extraordinary and captivating forms.”[5] What do you think of this? Does it speak in any way to the evolution of your piece?

CT: Definitely! That is on point. Palimpsest could be understood as a process-driven mutating visual language where one sheet (or “being”) depends on the next one as well as the previous one to exist. The same way an organism does. It replicates. Multiplies. Evolves. In a conversation we once had, you touched on how in biology, evolution itself is a form of palimpsest.

OS: That’s right! I even found a scientific paper from 1998[6] which posited a theory that organisms are a form of palimpsest as their genetic makeup possesses both new acquired traits as well as remnants of old traits. But more intuitively, what inspired me to connect this concept to your work was a comment from your mother at the end of the opening night. She said, quite excitedly, that the experience felt like “un ser vivo” (a living organism).

CT: Yes, I remember her remark!

OS: Do you think the evolution of the project and final results will have any impact in your book design practice? Does it open up new room for further exploration? Perhaps a bookmaking manifesto even?

CT: Not only in my book design practice, but in my artistic practice. I want to keep on thinking of ways in which ideas can be relevant in the future by opening new ways of understanding creative processes. I would like to show an iteration of the work somewhere else. The strength of the concept is that it can be replicated elsewhere and the results will inevitably be different and unexpected. I am interested in open-ended concepts, those that can exist autonomously, those which are no longer dependent on me. I was surprised to be able to witness how there was a point where the work seemed to function almost by itself, in a very organic way.

OS: Regarding methods of book production, are there any other contemporary artists who are exploring the limits of bookmaking—from a collective or individual perspective?

CT: I am an avid book collector. Recently, I acquired a series of print-on-demand books by Karen ann Donnachie and Andy Simionato, part of their Library of Nonhuman Books.[7] The various titles and content are generated by AI using a custom-coded reading machine. This code selects parts while erasing others. Finally, the reading machine automatically searches for an illustration from the Google Images archive to "illuminate" the page according to the meanings of the remaining words. This project, as well as mine, questions the boundaries of authorship and challenges new ways of reading.

OS: Could a method like the one used in Palimpsest ever be applied to the production of a commercial book? Have there been any past attempts at doing that?

CT: Usually, in commercial settings, the aim is to sell. I’ve seen means of production being challenged in a commercial setting a few times, but when they risk it, it pays off. I remember being amazed by Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes (2010). I couldn’t believe that he had managed to insert such an experimental and sculptural book into regular bookshops. I’ve seen that being done by artists in the past, but never by writers in what’s considered a regular novel. In a way, Tree of Codes—now out of print—is also a palimpsest: It re-writes Bruno Schulz’s 1933 novel, The Street of Crocodiles, by means of the cutout as the pages reveal negative spaces. It shows that a book is a three-dimensional object. This takes me to another book, Tom Phillips’s A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel (1970), which has been published in six editions. Phillips layered paint onto the pages of a preexisting Victorian novel and treated the pages as a canvas, collaging into it, excluding to reveal a new narrative. All the words connect. They are dependent on each other the same way every copy is dependent on its previous one in Palimpsest. They reveal an unknown new layer and shed new lights on it.

OS: Finally, where else would you like this exhibition to occur next? Any other plans for the final book edition?

CT: I will receive about 250 sheets of paper. I am looking forward to assembling them into a single book which will be then published through backbonebooks and available to the public. I can imagine exhibiting this in a space, where the steel fixtures populate the walls in a circular way.

  • (1)

    Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” Artforum 5, no. 10 (Summer 1967): pp.79–83.

  • (2)

    Ulises Carrión, Definitions of Art (Amsterdam: Other Books and So, 1977).

  • (3)

    Steve Reich and Paul Hillier, Writings on Music: 1965-2000 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

  • (4)

    Lesley Mok, “Transformation and Transmutation: A Performance by Lesley Mok” (Miriam Gallery, Brooklyn, NY, July 29, 2022).

  • (5)

    James Bridle, Ways of Being: Animals, Plants, Machines: The Search for a Planetary Intelligence (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022).

  • (6)

     JA Kirsch and G C Mayer, “The Platypus Is Not a Rodent: DNA Hybridization, Amniote Phylogeny and the Palimpsest Theory,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences 353, no. 1372 (1998): pp. 1221–37, https://doi:10.1098/rstb.1998.0278.

  • (7)

    Karen ann Donnachie and Andy Simionato, The Library of Nonhuman Books (Melbourne, Australia: Atomic Activity Books, 2019).

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